Polarized Venezuela Prepares to Vote on Chavez Recall

August 12, 2004

As millions of voters in Venezuela head to the polls Sunday to vote on whether to recall President Hugo Chavez from office we host a debate between Martin Sanchez, the editor of a grassroots website for Chavez supporters and Jorge Combellas, the U.S. coordinator for the recall referendum on Chavez. [includes rush transcript]

Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez say they will only accept the results of this weekends recall referendum if international organizations acting as observers approve them.

Millions of voters in Venezuela will head to the polls Sunday to vote on whether to recall Chavez from office. Last month the National Electoral Council announced opponents of Chavez had gathered enough signatures to force a recall. If he is defeated in the referendum, presidential elections will be held within 30 days.

But some recent polls say Chavez will likely survive the recall vote Sunday. One Bush administration official said "He’s definitely got momentum on his side" and admitted that Washington is unlikely to be happy with the outcome. This according to the Inter Press Service.

U.S.-Venezuela relations have turned sour ever since Chavez was elected president in 1998, In heated speeches, Chavez has condemned the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and threatened to cut off oil sales to the United States.

Since then, more than $1 million in U.S. government money has been given to Venezuelan opposition groups for democracy-training programs under the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracy–a private agency funded entirely by the U.S. government. $54,000 of those funds have gone to the group that gathered the signatures that led to Sunday’s referendum.

Chavez supporters have complained that the United States is meddling in Venezuelan affairs, and the vote. Supporters have also criticized the U.S. for supporting a coup attempt in April 2002. Chavez was removed from power by a coalition of military officials and business leaders but returned to office two days later.

  • Martin Sanchez, editor of Aporrea.org, main grassroots website for Chavez supporters and co-editor of the news site Venezuelanalysis.com. He joins us on the phone from Caracas.
  • Jorge Combellas, editor of the opposition website 11abril.com and the U.S. coordinator for the referendum to recall President Chavez


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re going to have a debate. We’re joined by Martin Sanchez, who is webmaster of aporrea.org, the main grassroots website for Chavez supporters, also co-editor of the news site, venezuelanalysis.com. He joins us from Caracas. And we’re joined by Jorge Combellas, editor of opposition website 11abril.com, U.S. coordinator for the referendum to recall President Chavez. Why don’t we begin with Jorge Combellas? Tell us where you think the vote will go at this point, the vote, of course, on Sunday.

JORGE COMBELLAS: Hi. First of all, thank you for being — having me on your program. It’s an honor and it’s pleasure to be on your program. I think the vote is going to go for the yes option, I mean it’s for the recall, the recall the mandate of the presidency of Hugo Chavez. Really, you were talking about some polls. There are a lot of polls right now going around. I could mention some of them that goes in favor of the opposition. As you were saying, some of them go in favor of the government. Now, I would like to say something also. In the past, we have seen this in other countries. One example was in Nicaragua in 1989, where the polls were saying that the president at that moment, Daniel Ortega, was going to win the elections. The truth is he lost the elections. The reason, at least the analysis of that, it was that a lot of people was afraid of giving their opinion in public polls because they were afraid to be on a blacklist. So, when the vote is secret, people are going to express their opinion. I’m pretty sure the yes option is going to win.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Martin Sanchez, you are you are a supporter of keeping President Chavez in office. Why do you — what do you think your sense now of how the vote will go and why?

MARTIN SANCHEZ: First of all, thank you for the invitation. Actually, being in Caracas, I think gives you a whole different perspective on things. If you go outside the upper class areas where anti-Chavez sentiment is big, you will notice that there’s an overwhelming support for President Chavez. I think it’s not that there’s some polls that favor the opposition. I have not seen a recent poll, a poll that’s new and recent the last month, that actually gives the opposition the upper hand. All polls, and you can try to do a search on the web or try to find a quote from on opposition pollster. You can see that the pollsters who were openly aligned with the opposition give President Chavez the upper hand. He has been gaining momentum for the last six months, and right now the difference is it hovers between 9% and 31% according to which poll you choose.

JORGE COMBELLAS: Can I can talk a little bit about it?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Jorge Combellas?

JORGE COMBELLAS: Yes. If you have seen the central university poll, and the difference between this poll and all of the other previous polls is that this is a close poll. People really in this case, they think they put it in the paper, they close the paper and they put it in the box, and it’s completely — it’s a secret, so nobody knows. I mean, the persons who is conducting the poll doesn’t know what that person is putting on the paper. That recent poll, and it’s the most important in the University of Minnesota was 43 in favor of the government and 55 in favor of the opposition. I’m not sure which polls are you looking at, but also you have the gallup poll that was in favor of the opposition, and you have a Consultores 21 poll that was also in favor of the opposition. But anyway, going more ahead about the polls, we can start discussing about what’s going on in the polls. And it depends which poll are you reading. You are going to see different results. The whole thing is that the real polls will be sunday. There is the moment that really the people is going to express their opinion. If they want Chavez to continue in power, or if they want him to get out of the power.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Get away from the polls for a second, and get to some of the substance of the battle here. It appears, though, all sides agree that President Chavez has had a rebound of public support in recent months. Largely, apparently because the rise in oil prices, worldwide oil prices as a result of the continued troubles in the Middle East have made it possible for him to devote much more money to social programs that he initially had promised. Wondering if you would like to comment. Martin Sanchez, on the social programs that have been directed largely at Chavez’s base?

MARTIN SANCHEZ: Well, I — you know, it’s — actually I’m quite happy that they’re using that oil money for the social programs, because that’s something that people have a lot of expectancy when Chavez took power. People expected to, you know, have the problem solved. When you go to poor neighborhoods, you see that they have a local market now that sells fruit at very low prices. They have a doctor they can go to in their neighborhood. That’s something that keeps people happy. I don’t see what the problem is with Chavez implementing those social programs. He should have done that since the beginning of his presidency. The opposition accused Chavez of buying votes, but I think naturally, using oil money for the social programs and to give lower income — lower interest credit to co-ops and to small businesses is good. I don’t see that as a negative thing. In fact, yeah, it has cause and effect. Chavez has gained momentum, but the social programs have been implemented for — the last two years. It’s not something that just happening now.

AMY GOODMAN: Jorge Combellas, your response to that, and just overall, the surge that President Hugo Chavez has enjoyed in the last weeks.

JORGE COMBELLAS: Right, so, about the social programs, I mean, if — I agree with social programs, and investing in education, and in health of the people, et cetera, but it’s really suspicious after almost six years in power that Chavez has done any — nothing at all for the poor people. That he starts with these programs just before the recall referendum and expending about $3 billion in this program. I agree that there is a lot of poverty. Poverty has increased a lot in the last five years during this government. It was to give you some numbers, about 50% of the people were under human conditions — living under inhuman conditions, and in the last two years that number has increased to 65%. So, things are going really wrong in the country, especially when what you are talking about, we have revenue from all the oil that are high in Venezuela, and to just start that about three months ago is really suspicious, especially when you have a recall right now in three days.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But Jorge Combellas, you will admit that part of the problems for the economic dislocation of the past few years has had to do with the constant internal strife, the strikes that the opposition mounted, created the crippling of the oil industry, certainly at least for the last two years has created enormous economic problems for Venezuela.

JORGE COMBELLAS: Yeah. There have been a lot of problems with the economics. But let me remember you — the strike came into place because there were social problems. It wasn’t a strike of the people with money. It was a strike of the unions. I mean, it was a strike of all of the coalition, all of the opposition coalitions. I’m talking about leftist parties. I’m talking about parties like Red Flag, Bandera Roja in Spanish, that are communist parties that are in the power of the opposition. The strike came because we had real problems. That was after three-and-a-half years of the government of Chavez. Four-and-a-half years. I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Sanchez, your response?

MARTIN SANCHEZ: Yeah. I think that it’s obvious to the world audiences that the strike was not a grassroots strike. It was not a strike of the unions. It was a strike of the oil company management, and I think that it is obvious that — I think that people should go to the web and check for it. One can say whatever one wants on a radio show, but the truth is there. Chavez, actually — I think that the opposition actions is not only the strike, but the coup, and the destabilization of the economy, it shows because of class nature of the current situation here, you see local investors taking their money out because the opposition is telling everybody that Chavez is going straight into communism and all of their assets will be confiscated. For six years we’ll be waiting for the communism to come, and it just hasn’t come. For investors, coming back into the country, because they’re figuring out that what the opposition is putting out is not true. I just think that the economy would be in a lot better shape. We lost $14 billion just because of the oil strikes in 2002. So, and just, you know, the coup had a big effect for investors and just the opposition at the overall the way the media handled the country and the way the media portrayed the country overseas it just had a big effect on the foreign investors and local investors.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the issue of the United States’ role? Every day 1.5 million barrels of oil from Venezuela reach U.S. shores. Venezuela is now the third largest supplier of foreign oil to the United States. Your comment, both of you, on the role of the United States in the internal problems of Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: Jorge Combellas.

JORGE COMBELLAS: Yes. There is something interesting there. Here in the United States, Chavez has been attacking the political of Bush, but what’s interesting is that the democrats and the republicans in the United States have a common position. If you go to John Kerry’s website, you will see his position about what’s going on in Venezuela. He was backing the referendum also. He was saying let the people express themselves what they want, especially in this political crisis. He was saying also, he was saying that what we have in Venezuela is an authoritarian government and this is the way that people will have the choice to select —-if they want Chavez to continue in power or not. Chavez, what he has been doing in the last, especially in the last year is threatening the United States in that he’s going to cut oil exports to the United States, but he didn’t find what he was looking for, that was John Kerry’s support. I was in Washington about two months ago, and there was a hearing in the Senate, and it was interesting that both parties were in the same position. They were saying, "Let people express themselves." At that moment, we just had the possibility of having the referendum, but the government was prosecuting opposition, he’s going against people who support the opposition and people who are leaders of the opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 15 seconds. Martin Sanchez, your response.

MARTIN SANCHEZ: I think it’s obvious that John Kerry is pursuing the Cuban right of vote in South Florida after the fiasco of the last election with Bush and Gore. I think it’s important for Kerry to gain the vote of the influential Cuban right in Florida. I think with regard to the oil to the U.S., Chavez is just demanding respect. Chavez is more than willing and happy to deal with the U.S. and sell them oil, but he’s demanding respect. That’s why he said, "Well, if the U.S. threatens to overthrow the government or attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan government again and threatens our sovereignty, then, you know, there will be a stoppage of the oil shipments." So, I think that Chavez — all Chavez demands is respect to Venezuelan sovereignty.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note —

MARTIN SANCHEZ: And [inaudible] the United States in a normal way.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll have to leave it there. Martin Sanchez, webmaster of aporrea.org. And Jorge Combellas, editor of the opposition website 11abril.com. Those websites as well as Juan’s piece in today’s New York Daily News, "Big Test for Embattled Populist." You can go to democracynow.org to get the links.